Hell Is A City
September, 2013

Hollywood came to Manchester twice in the twentieth century, and both have a personal connection for me.
The first started with Burnage Grammar School and ended with Top of the Pops. But more of that another time.
The second lasted just a few seconds, but has been immortalised forever.

hell is a city opening credit
Hell is a City was a feature film made by Hammer Films late in 1959, famous for their output of horror, and centred on gangsters and crime in the city of Manchester. It starred Stanley Baker and the wonderful Billie Whitelaw.
Stanley Baker was one of the top actors in the 60s, star of the film The Guns of Navarone, friend of Richard Burton, and producer of the iconic Michael Caine film, The Italian Job.
hell is a city baker whitelaw
Billie Whitelaw, still going strong now at 81, was a regular cast member of many films in the 50s and 60s, and won a BAFTA for her performance alongside Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles. Later on, she was, for a quarter of a century, the foremost interpreter of the plays of Samuel Beckett, and the year after Hell is a City was released, she won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actress.
But in the early autumn of 1959, they were in Manchester making a film noir that was to become a by-word for successful location shooting.
Filmed in and around Manchester, it made the city centre, Levenshulme and Rusholme recognisable to the many local cinemagoers in the city, as well as places around Oldham and the hills beyond. It lived up to its advertising as tough and gritty, with seriously dangerous fight scenes on the rooftops of Manchester, although I think many cinema patrons were too busy trying to locate the streets and buildings rather than be caught up in the action.
hell is a city errwood house
Some of the film's quieter moments were filmed in and around Errwood House, the supposed residence of a bookie and his wife (Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw), who got themselves mixed up with an on-the-run jail breaker.
I was 13 at the time the film was made, and cycling to and from Burnage Grammar School and our house in Levenshulme. That took me past Errwood House, a rather splendid detached corner house with arresting black-and-white timber façades. It was a house I always knew, as a couple of doors away lived a boy at school and his sister, whose father was then picture editor of the Sunday Express. But on this one particular afternoon, there were far more people around than I had ever remembered. As I got closer, I saw that, despite the bright day, there were enormous arc lamps set up on the pavement and pounding the scene with extra heat and light. Naturally, I slowed to watch, and was suddenly asked if I could go back and re-trace my route on the other side of the road. Dutifully obeying (you did in those days), I watched as a man came out of the drive, spoke to a policeman and got into a big black police car, which sped off with its passenger. I had absolutely no idea who it was or what was going on. All I knew was that they were making some kind of film, and that I may well be seen in it, albeit in the background.
It wasn't until the following year, when there was a lot of publicity for the release of the film, that I recognised the man in the car as Stanley Baker. So, yes, reader, I was that boy on a bike, and a film star at 13!


Ironically, though, the British Board of Film Censors awarded the film an 'A' Certificate, which meant it could be seen by anyone under 16 only if accompanied by an adult. However, the Manchester Watch Committee, in its wisdom, decided that, in all cinemas within their jurisdiction, Certificate A meant it was barred to anyone under 14. And by the time I was 14, it was no longer being shown on the cinema circuit.
So I had to wait until the film came out on DVD before I could see my own fifteen seconds of fame.

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